People Get Ready: Preparing for Challenges | Censorship

Library leaders, staff, and boards need to be prepared for increasingly sophisticated attacks on readers’ rights.

Challenging Times As intellectual freedom attacks gain momentum, they increasingly call for all hands on deck to battle censorship campaigns and threats. LJ takes a look at some of the leading conflicts, how one library weathered hostilities, and ways to be ready when challenges come to you (below).

Library leaders, staff, and boards need to be prepared for increasingly sophisticated attacks on readers’ rights

As censorship of materials, programs, and services ramps up around the country, an increasing number of politically right-wing groups are making public (and some academic) libraries their primary targets. Despite the insistence that they’re concerned for community members, the groups mounting opposition to anti-racist or LGBTQIA+-themed titles in libraries are not grassroots organizations, nor are they necessarily locally based. Many, such as Moms for Liberty, are extensive—often national—in scope. Legislation across the country, also coordinated and supported on a national scale, is targeting the freedom to read, seeking to remove power from library boards and standardize the challenge process at the state level to reduce local library control.

While these challenges often feel like they come out of left field with little provocation beforehand, a clear pattern of deliberate and coordinated action is at work, and libraries can prepare to meet the moment. Immediate-action items include educating staff and the board of trustees on challenge procedures, reviewing and strengthening current policies, forging active and supportive relationships with elected officials, and understanding the American Library Association (ALA) censorship reporting tools. But there are other proactive measures libraries can take to be as ready as possible and to help allay worries when challenges do arrive. (See also the Challenge Readiness Resources sidebar.)



When it comes to facing challenges, a library’s strongest and probably most-used defense is its policy. Collection development, reconsideration, and challenge policies should be robust and detailed; the procedures they specify should be followed without exception.

There are many resources for crafting solid policy, starting with the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s (OIF) Intellectual Freedom Manual (ALA Editions). Examples of other policies can provide useful benchmarks and language, with the caveat that policies at libraries in larger cities may not map as esily to a small or rural library. Still, says Amanda Vazquez, director of Dubuque County Library District, IA, there will be concepts that apply to all, noting that “Finding policies that you think are good, or finding other procedures in other libraries that you think are working well, is important.”

Policies should be living documents, and be reviewed every two to three years as needs change or become apparent. In recent years libraries have updated reconsideration policies to clarify who can mount a request (only members of the library’s service population), to determine how frequently a title will be reconsidered (once only, or only once a year), and to specify internal actions that are not acceptable (such as reshelving or pulling materials in advance of a reconsideration request or decision).



Library administrators should familiarize themselves with First Amendment legal decisions at the national and state level—the state law library can help with the latter. Library leadership should also be well versed in the ALA Code of Ethics and Intellectual Freedom Manual, as well as state law pertinent to libraries. The library’s legal resource toolkit can also include the local public information board, state library association or consortium, and state library to forge useful connections and stay current on local developments.

Actively think about whom the library can turn to for legal assistance, and become familiar with the tactics of those trying to mount censorship campaigns in other communities. OIF Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone recommends hiring prospective lawyers for a small job—a policy or code that needs changing, for example—and consulting with them for an hour. Once that is done, the library is that firm’s client and that relationship will take precedence even if an outside group wants to engage the same firm. “I’ve been in a city where the city attorney went around and consulted with all of the attorneys in town so that the citizens who were unhappy about something could not use those attorneys,” says Vazquez. Spending a small fee to establish a relationship is “a little insurance policy,” she adds.

Vazquez suggests that libraries engage independent legal counsel not dependent on the library’s city or county. “They do not answer to you,” she says, “and they probably have a much better relationship with your police department than they do with you.”



Library leaders should actively, and proactively, talk with their elected officials and legislators to explain that they are fully ready and able to make decisions about library materials with the interests of the community in mind. Don’t wait until a challenge happens—build those relationships now. Remember: advocacy is not only for election cycles.

In addition to municipal leaders such as the mayor and city council, library leaders should get to know local school superintendents and administrators. Reach out to school librarians as well, if the district has them—they can offer a heads up on  which titles are getting challenged. Find out who the state library association lobbyist is as well, and make sure your library is on their radar.



Freedom of information and library policy training for trustees is critical, as they will find themselves on the front lines as well—and it’s important that they can speak decisively about the challenge process and present a unified front. This can begin by talking to the board about the issues they may face and describing existing First Amendment precedents, whether or not they agree with those decisions.

That’s only the first step, however. “Established legal precedent is not as comforting as it used to be,” says Vazquez. “Lots of things are changing, and they’re changing quickly and dramatically.” Continuing education for trustees is therefore a wise investment; United for Libraries offers trustee training with membership, as well as articles that can be shared with board members.

Trustee support also includes working with the library’s user base to enlist the support of all library fans—patrons, Friends, and community members—before it’s needed. Then invite them to the public-comment portion of trustee board meetings where their enthusiasm can help support the library, especially if challengers are planning to do the same.



Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are often part of challenge tactics. FOIA requires federal and state organizations to disclose uncirculated documents fully or partially on request; these can include emails, texts, internal memos, personnel files, and—in the case of libraries—data such as program attendance and title circulation. FOIA requests are used to gather information, but because compiling and sorting the material can be time-consuming, they are also employed as a strategy to disrupt operations. Being FOIA-ready—especially if a program or event is expected to draw attention from opposition groups—can greatly streamline the process and reduce the impact of such tactics.

Even before Downers Grove Public Library (DGPL), IL, drew anti-LGBTQIA+ attention with a Drag Queen Bingo event last fall (see “Standing Up to Hate and Misinformation”), Director Julie Milavec understood the FOIA process and made sure the library had a system in place to handle it. All FOIA requests and responses were posted on the library website, explains Public Relations Manager Cindy Khatri. “Then we could simply link to a previous FOIA response instead of having to redo all the work.”

Having an efficient way to easily compile information, sort through duplicate items, and redact personal or identifying information for a FOIA response is key. DGPL uses Google Vault, an archiving and electronic discovery service, to store all internal email and documents. The library also created a button at the bottom of any online statement or response that sent patrons to a form to submit feedback. This was then automatically added to an Excel spreadsheet used to respond to FOIA requests—it was a lifesaver, Khatri says. “Luckily, we had made the decision to turn off all social media comments a day into this process,” she adds, cutting down on the comments that needed to be weeded through.

Learn the ins and outs of FOIA parameters, she advises, such as what information falls within its scope, what can and should be redacted, and how many hours of staff time can legally be spent on a FOIA response before the individual who filed needs to pay for it. In the absence of an administrator or IT staff member who knows their way around FOIA, Khatri recommends searching for research guides or professional development opportunities through a state library or consortium.



Online and print media can be valuable allies during a challenge, but that relationship needs to be cultivated ahead of time as well. Making sure that staff members know how to engage with the media will ensure that the library’s message gets across clearly when competing voices are trying to be heard.

Media training for staff can be done within the library and is often available for municipal employees at the county level. In Florida, the management team at LeRoy Collins Leon County Public Library System took advantage of in-depth media training offered by the county’s Government Community and Media Relations department—because as director Pamela Monroe says, “It’s not really a question of if you’ll have a challenge, but when.” Management shared the information, which included tips for preparing for an interview and how to incorporate bridging statements—which refocus the conversation on the topic at hand when responding to questions—with staff.

The information was then added to the employee handbook to be referenced as needed. As the library gears up for spring programming announcements, says Monroe, staff “have expressed appreciation because they felt prepared to respond when reporters called or came in person to request an interview.”

In the event of a specific incident, media requests should be funneled through one person to keep the message consistent. “Don’t go off the record,” Khatri advises. Keeping the press on your side means having open lines of communication, she adds: “Give them a heads up when you update a FAQ page or your statement” (and update the library’s FAQ page regularly, so it’s a useful resource).

And when talking to the press, be sure the response centers any impacted group—in the case of the pushback at Downers Grove, says Khatri, messaging from and about the LGBTQIA+ community took priority.



Challenges are stressful for everyone—perhaps most of all for the employees who work with the public and who will be the ones who are approached first face-to-face. Make sure that everyone, from administration to volunteers, understands the challenge process and is well versed in intellectual freedom and library policy basics, as well as local laws that relate to libraries; it’s often helpful to prepare messaging and scripts ahead of time. Library leaders should remember that being confronted with a book challenge can be intimidating. “Having your staff and your board know that you’re prepared for these things can instill a lot of confidence and minimize panic in the moment,” says Vazquez.

“When someone comes in [to challenge a book], everyone should know their roles,” Jennifer Pearson, director of Marshall County Memorial Library System, TN, advises in WebJunction’s “Book Challenges and Intellectual Freedom: Proactive Planning for Public Libraries” webinar. “First off, hand them a reconsideration form. Direct them to the director, don’t answer any questions.” A solid reconsideration policy should list who fills which role in the process. It’s helpful to keep an up-to-date packet at the front desk to hand to a challenger that contains the library’s collection development policy, ALA’s Library Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read statement, and—last of all—a reconsideration form.

Most important: Encourage all employees not to take challenges personally. Because the library is a publicly funded entity, the public can request reconsiderations or file statements of concern as part of their right to petition the government, and not every request originates with a pro-censorship group’s agenda.

“We don’t have to make it the easiest thing in the world to file an official challenge,” Vazquez notes. “But your patrons, users, and community members should feel that their library and their local government is responsive to them and their concerns.”

While you can’t anticipate when or where a censorship attempt or protest might come from, being ready for them is an investment in the library’s values. Make sure that all policies, checklists, and toolkits are available to staff and trustees when they need them. Reread the library’s reconsideration policy periodically. Pay attention to your state’s bill-tracker website. Report all challenges using ALA’s tools so they’re on record.

Most of all, keep talking to colleagues—find out what situations they’ve encountered, and how they’ve managed them. “It seems a little fatalistic to be so prepared for the negativity and for the criticism, but it’s a lot less emotionally draining to prepare for those things in advance,” says Vazquez. “You can feel confident that you’re doing a better job if you have worked through these potentials.”



American Library Association (ALA) Challenge Support contains a wealth of information and tools, including the Challenge Reporting form.

Also see ALA’s Code of Ethics, Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, & Academic Libraries, and Library Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read Statement pamphlet.

ALA’s Merritt Fund helps support librarians who have been denied employment rights because of defense of intellectual freedom—use it or donate.

Office for Intellectual Freedom offers information, trainings, and profiles.

United for Libraries has tools and trainings for library boards, foundations, and Friends, including trustee training and a list of state resources for trustees.

ALA and Public Library Association (PLA) Resource Guide for Library Safety and Preparedness.

Freedom to Read Foundation

Unite Against Book Bans

Applicable First Amendment Laws

Texans for the Right to Read

#FReadom Fighters

School Library Journal’s “State-by-State Guide to the Coalitions and Campaigns Fighting Legislation Criminalizing Librarians”

WebJunction’s “Book Challenges and Intellectual Freedom: Proactive Planning for Public Libraries” webinar

Iowa Library Association’s “Trustees on the Front Lines: Intellectual Freedom in Public Libraries and Your Role” webinar

Toolkit for Censorship and Challenges at Your Public Library template—download and make a copy with this view only link.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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